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Al Capone

A Biography of the Iconic American Gangster

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Picture of American gangster Al Capone.

American gangster Al Capone (1899 - 1947).

(Photo by APA/Getty Images)

Who Was Al Capone?

Al Capone was a notorious gangster who ran an organized crime syndicate in Chicago during the 1920s, taking advantage of the era of Prohibition. Capone, who was both charming and charitable as well as powerful and vicious, became an iconic figure of the successful American gangster.

Dates: January 17, 1899 -- January 25, 1947

Also Known As: Alphonse Capone, Scarface

Al Capone's Childhood

Al Capone was the fourth of nine children born to Gabriele and Teresina (Teresa) Capone. Although Capone's parents had emigrated from Italy, Al Capone grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

From all known accounts, Capone's childhood was a normal one. His father was a barber and his mother stayed home with the children. They were a tight-knit Italian family who were trying to succeed in their new country.

Like many immigrant families at the time, the Capone children often dropped out of school early to help earn money for the family. Al Capone stayed in school until he was 14 and then left to take a number of odd jobs.

Around the same time, Capone joined a street gang called the South Brooklyn Rippers and then later the Five Points Juniors. These were groups of teenagers who roamed the streets, protected their turf from rival gangs, and sometimes carried out petty crimes like stealing cigarettes.

Scarface

It was through the Five Points gang that Al Capone came to the attention of brutal New York mobster Frankie Yale. In 1917, 18-year-old Al Capone went to work for Yale at the Harvard Inn as a bartender and as a waiter and bouncer when needed. Capone watched and learned as Yale used violence to maintain control over his empire.

One day while working at the Harvard Inn, Capone saw a man and woman sitting at a table. After his initial advances were ignored, Capone went up to the good-looking woman and whispered in her ear, "Honey, you have a nice ass and I mean that as a compliment." The man with her was her brother, Frank Gallucio.

Defending his sister's honor, Gallucio punched Capone. However, Capone didn't let it end there; he decided to fight back. Gallucio then took out a knife and slashed at Capone's face, managing to cut Capone's left cheek three times (one of which cut Capone from ear to mouth). The scars left from this attack led to Capone's nickname of "Scarface," a name he personally hated.

Family Life

Not long after this attack, Al Capone met Mary ("Mae") Coughlin, who was pretty, blonde, middle-class, and came from a respectable Irish family. A few months after they started dating, Mae became pregnant. Al Capone and Mae got married on December 30, 1918, three weeks after their son (Albert Francis Capone, a.k.a. "Sonny") was born. Sonny was to remain Capone's only child.

Throughout the rest of his life, Al Capone kept his family and his business interests completely separate. Capone was a doting father and husband, taking great care in keeping his family safe, cared for, and out of the spotlight.

However, despite his love for his family, Capone did have a number of mistresses over the years. Plus, unknown to him at the time, Capone contracted syphilis from a prostitute before he met Mae. Since the symptoms of syphilis can disappear quickly, Capone had no idea that he still had the sexually transmitted disease or that it would so greatly affect his health in later years.

Capone Moves to Chicago

About 1920, Capone left the East Coast and headed to Chicago. He was looking for a fresh start working for Chicago crime boss Johnny Torrio. Unlike Yale who used violence to run his racket, Torrio was a sophisticated gentleman who preferred cooperation and negotiation to rule his crime organization. Capone was to learn a lot from Torrio.

Capone started out in Chicago as a manager for the Four Deuces, a place where clients could drink and gamble downstairs or visit prostitutes upstairs. Capone did well in this position and worked hard to earn Torrio's respect. Soon Torrio had increasingly important jobs for Capone and by 1922 Capone had risen up the ranks in Torrio's organization.

When William E. Dever, an honest man, took over as Chicago's mayor in 1923, Torrio decided to avoid the mayor's attempts to curb crime by moving his headquarters to the Chicago suburb of Cicero. It was Capone who made this happen. Capone established speakeasies, brothels, and gambling joints. Capone also worked diligently to get all the important city officials on his payroll. It didn't take long for Capone to "own" Cicero.

Capone had more than proven his worth to Torrio and it wasn't long before Torrio handed over the entire organization to Capone.

Capone Becomes Crime Boss

Following the November 1924 murder of Dion O'Banion (an associate of Torrio and Capone's who had become untrustworthy), Torrio and Capone were seriously hunted by one of O'Banion's vengeful friends.

Fearing for his life, Capone drastically upgraded everything about his personal safety, including surrounding himself with bodyguards and ordering a bulletproof Cadillac sedan.

Torrio, on the other hand, did not greatly change his routine and on January 12, 1925 was savagely attacked just outside his home. Nearly killed, Torrio decided to retire and hand his entire organization over to Capone in March 1925.

Capone had learned well from Torrio and soon proved himself to be an extremely successful crime boss.

Capone as a Celebrity Gangster

Al Capone, only 26-years old, was now in charge of a very large crime organization that included brothels, nightclubs, dance halls, race tracks, gambling establishments, restaurants, speakeasies, breweries, and distilleries. As a major crime boss in Chicago, Capone put himself in the public's eye.

Capone was an outlandish character. He dressed in colorful suits, wore a white fedora hat, proudly displayed his 11.5 carat diamond pinky ring, and would often pull out his huge roll of bills while out in public places. It was hard not to notice Al Capone.

Capone was also known for his generosity. He would frequently tip a waiter $100, had standing orders in Cicero to hand out coal and clothes to the needy during the cold winters, and opened some of the first soup kitchens during the Great Depression.

There were also numerous stories of how Capone would personally help out when he heard a hard-luck story, such as a woman considering turning to prostitution to help her family or a young kid who couldn't go to college because of the high cost of tuition. Capone was so generous to the average citizen that some even considered him a modern-day Robin Hood.

Capone the Killer

As much as the average citizen considered Capone to be a generous benefactor and local celebrity, Capone was also a cold-blooded killer. Although the exact numbers will never be known, it is believed that Capone personally murdered dozens of people and ordered the killing of hundreds of others.

One such example of Capone handling things personally occurred in the spring of 1929. Capone had learned that three of his associates planned to betray him, so he invited all three to a huge banquet. After the three unsuspecting men had eaten heartily and drank their fill, Capone's bodyguards quickly tied them to their chairs. Capone then picked up a baseball bat and began hitting them, breaking bone after bone. When Capone was done with them, the three men were shot in the head and their bodies dumped out of town.

The most famous example of a hit believed to be ordered by Capone was the February 14, 1929 assassination now called the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. On that day, Capone's henchman "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn attempted to lure rival crime leader George "Bugs" Moran into a garage and kill him. The ruse was actually quite elaborate and would have been completely successful if Moran hadn't been running a few minutes late. Still, seven of Moran's top men were gunned down in that garage.

Tax Evasion

Despite committing murder and other crimes for years, it was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre that brought Capone to the attention of the federal government. When President Herbert Hoover learned about Capone, Hoover personally pushed for Capone's arrest.

The federal government had a two-pronged attack plan. One part of the plan included collecting evidence of Prohibition violations as well as shutting down Capone's illegal businesses. Treasury agent Eliot Ness and his group of "Untouchables" were to enact this part of the plan by frequently raiding Capone's breweries and speakeasies. The forced shut down, plus the confiscation of all that was found, severely hurt Capone's business -- and his pride.

The second part of the government's plan was to find evidence of Capone not paying taxes on his massive income. Capone had been careful over the years to run his businesses with cash only or through third parties. However, the IRS found an incriminating ledger and some witnesses who were able to testify against Capone.

On October 6, 1931, Capone was brought to trial. He was charged with 22 counts of tax evasion and 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act (the main Prohibition law). The first trial focused only on the tax evasion charges. On October 17, Capone was found guilty of only five of the 22 tax evasion charges. The judge, not wanting Capone to get off easily, sentenced Capone to 11 years in prison, $50,000 in fines, and court costs totalling $30,000.

Capone was completely shocked. He had thought he could bribe the jury and get away with these charges just like he had dozens of others. He had no idea that this was to be the end of his reign as crime boss. He was only 32 years old.

Capone Goes to Alcatraz

When most high ranking gangsters went to prison, they usually bribed the warden and prison guards in order to make their stay behind bars plush with amenities. Capone was not that lucky. The government wanted to make an example of him.

After his appeal was denied, Capone was taken to the Atlanta Penitentiary in Georgia on May 4, 1932. When rumors leaked out that Capone had been receiving special treatment there, he was chosen to be one of the first inmates at the new maximum security prison at Alcatraz in San Francisco.

When Capone arrived at Alcatraz in August 1934, he became prisoner number 85. There were no bribes and no amenities at Alcatraz. Capone was in a new prison with the most violent of criminals, many of whom wanted to challenge the tough gangster from Chicago. However, just as daily life became more brutal for him, his body began to suffer from the long-term effects of syphilis.

Over the next several years, Capone began to grow increasingly disoriented, experienced convulsions, slurred speech, and a shuffling walk. His mind quickly deteriorated.

After spending four-and-a-half years at Alcatraz, Capone was transferred on January 6, 1939 to a hospital at the Federal Correctional Institution in Los Angeles. A few months after that Capone was transferred to a penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

On November 16, 1939, Capone was paroled.

Retirement and Death

Capone had tertiary syphilis and it wasn't something that could be healed. However, Capone's wife, Mae, took him to a number of different doctors. Despite many novel attempts at a cure, Capone's mind continued to degenerate.

Capone spent his remaining years in quiet retirement at his estate in Miami, Florida while his health slowly got worse.

On January 19, 1947, Capone suffered a stroke. After developing pneumonia, Capone died on January 25, 1947 of cardiac arrest at age 48.

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